PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad, May 8, CMC – Prime Minister Dr. Keith Rowley Friday said that the general election will be called in Trinidad and Tobago “when it is due” and brushed aside concerns by opposition legislators that the polls may be hampered by the ongoing efforts to prevent the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19).
“The elections will be called when the elections are due,” Rowley told legislators.
The last general election was held here on September 7, 2015 with Rowley leading the then opposition People’s National Movement (PNM) to victory over the ruling People’s Partnership government that was headed by Kamla Persad Bissessar.
During the debate on the Representation of the People (Amendment) Bill, 2020, opposition legislator Ganga Singh said the Prime Minister had until December 23 to hold the elections for the 41-seat Parliament.
“So that is the time line that we have and that is why I ask the question with respect to the campaign finance reform what is the legislative pathway for us to get that piece of legislation in place working prior to the general elections of 2020.”
Singh also questioned whether the country was prepared for an election given the concerns about the virus.
“So the issue which arises at this point ibn time, Madam Speaker, is that the challenge that we face at the time in the context of this global pandemic, simply put, can we host a general election with all the safeguards required for the coronavirus?.
“We must waive that against the principle that democratic elections constitute the bedrock upon which the institutions and mechanisms of government are erected,” Singh said, noting that the laws here do not provide for electronic voting as is the case in some other countries.
But Prime Minister Rowley said the position being articulated by Singh was in contrast to the Opposition Leader, who on Thursday called for the general election to be held now.
“I would entreat my colleague on the other side to pay more attention to his erstwhile leader less he be seen to be on the wrong side of the see-saw, because Madam Speaker if you are on the wrong side of the see-saw and you are not paying attention it can be made to rise and hit you very hard in a tender place”.
Rowley said he is unaware of the opposition’s position regarding the elections “with respect to whether or not we can have elections.
“But I am saying to this country now, as of today, we have taken no decision, no consideration as the postponement of any election in Trinidad and Tobago because an election for Christmas is always a good thing in Trinidad and Tobago.
“So we have ample time, but I was really intrigued by that intervention,” Rowley said, reminding another opposition legislator that “from the day I was sworn in as Prime Minister I had the election day in my back pocket because only the Prime Minister can call an election in this country.
“So you made a great discovery today, an epiphany, “you have may a great discovery today that only the election date is in the Prime Minister’s pocket. That was there ever since I was sworn in,” Rowley added sarcastically.
Earlier, as he piloted the People (Amendment) Bill, 2020, which will go before a select committee of Parliament, Rowley said he had on becoming prime minister, made a commitment to the population that campaign finance reform legislation will be brought to the Parliament.
“Historically successive governments have only spoken on this issue of reform. Today, it brings me great satisfaction to inform this august House that my government, unlike any other government before us, has the fortitude to fulfil this promise of presenting legislation to address the issue of campaign finance.”
He said that the current law governing this issue is rooted in antiquated provisions of the Representation of the People Act of 1967, which merely provides a simplistic framework for accountability of a candidate’s funding.
Rowley said the law bears no resemblance to more progressive legislative reforms in many other countries and is replete with inadequacies.
“The current law does not formally recognise political parties as distinct legal entities that can compete against each other in elections and instead provides for political parties to apply to the Elections and Boundaries Commission (EBC) to use a symbol for all its candidates.
“The financial expenditure reporting requirement under the existing Act applies to the party’s candidates and independent candidates only. Political parties are not so obliged. The scrutiny therefore, as provided in the current law, is on the candidate rather than the political party itself.”
Rowley said that the current law does not facilitate or effectively cater for mergers and coalitions of political parties.
“It does not oblige political parties, coalitions or merged political parties to disclose and account for their full campaign expenditures to the Elections and Boundaries Commission (EBC) or any regulatory body. It also impractically, even laughably, limits campaign expenditure to TT$50,000 in the case of a Parliamentary election.”
He said the law also does not regulate the role and impact of the media during an election campaign by political parties.
“The present laissez faire system operates freely to meet the demands of those able to afford media costs. The reality is that not all political parties and candidates have fair and equitable access to the media for their political campaigns,” Rowley said, adding “the current law does not provide alternative sources of funding, such as public funding, to even the playing field for all interested in political office to present their unique political messages to voters”.
He said the Bill proposes to expand the remit of the EBC by establishing a division to be known as the Office of the Registrar of Political Parties responsible for carrying out specified administrative functions and duties and establish a Register of Political Parties.
“The Bill will require any association or body of individual citizens of our country intending to be classed and operated as political parties, to apply to the EBC to be so registered and introduces a system of voluntary and involuntary de-registration of political parties. The Bill will also introduce a mechanism for merger and coalition arrangements between or amongst political parties. “
He said the proposed legislation also proposes the imposition of a duty upon the executive officers of registered political parties to account for funding through audits, the filing of returns and the provision of statements of accounts.
“The Bill proposes the regulation of the sources of donations and the process for receiving them. For this purpose, a National Election Campaign Fund will be established and a specified category of persons and entities would be permitted to contribute to a political party and candidate of their choice.
“This category will include all citizens of our country who are 18 years and older, citizens in diaspora abroad, Trade Unions, Friendly Societies, NPOs, Building Societies and domestic companies. Thus we provide members of the public with an opportunity to become actively involved in the democratic electoral process. We will however guard our elections by establishing a specified class of non-permissible donors such as foreign governments, agents of those governments, entities engaged in illegal activities and state bodies,” Rowley said.